Love and Snowball Fights

By: J.R. Loveless

Chapter One

A LIGHT snow fell outside the window of the warm, crowded bar and restaurant Lane Freeman worked for. He picked up a bin and made his way over to clear off a table its occupants had just vacated. Christmas loomed close, a mere three days away. Colorful lights were strung up on the eaves of the houses, and decorations were scattered on the lawns of the small town he’d lived in for the past six months. The holiday always reminded him of the things he didn’t have: a home, family, or even friends. He didn’t wake up with eagerness on Christmas morning or expect to find loved ones gathered around the tree when he exited whatever bedroom he currently slept in. There were no gaily wrapped presents or affectionate embraces, no cheerful laughter or tender smiles. Not anymore.

After his parents were killed in a car accident when Lane was fifteen, he bounced from foster home to foster home until his eighteenth birthday when he was no longer a ward of the state. After that he’d moved from place to place, worked whatever odd job he could find. Now twenty-three, Lane found himself in a place where the people all knew one another, a town called, ironically, Christmas Valley, Washington. He ended up there accidentally after hitching a ride from a long-haul trucker. The man left him behind, most likely because of the painful silence Lane brought in his wake with his inability hold a conversation outside of one-word answers. Since then he’d found a job busing tables at Tal’s Bar and Restaurant, the only job available that Lane felt qualified for as he wasn’t exactly a chatterbox.

Socially awkward and embarrassingly shy, he found it hard to talk to people, which made it difficult to be a waiter or make friends, harder still to meet a significant other. The only things Lane had were a three-legged cat named Chloe—a stray he’d found in the alley out behind the restaurant—and a tiny apartment over an elderly woman’s garage.

“Lane!” his boss, Talbot Jenkins, shouted over the din. Tal was the epitome of kind and always made sure Lane had something to eat, especially after Lane had almost collapsed one night from hunger after starting work. He’d hired Lane despite his problem with talking to people. Over the six months, Tal had spent time trying to pull him out of his shell, and now Lane could hold a conversation without it being too stilted or full of long, awkward silences.

Lane turned to look at his boss from where he had begun to wipe down the table. Tal waved at him, motioning him over. Swallowing hard, Lane set the rag down in his bin and picked it up, weaving through the tables and patrons to the bar. Tal stood there with a man who looked a lot like him. As Lane approached them, he noticed how attractive the man was. Black hair framed a ruggedly tanned face with eyes gray as a steel pillar; his muscular body was lovingly hugged by a black T-shirt and well-washed blue jeans. He towered over Lane by almost a foot.

“Lane, this is my brother, Trey,” Tal introduced him. “He’s going to be helping out around here for a few days. Just wanted to let you know since you come in early for prep and he may be here.”

Unable to meet Trey’s gaze, Lane nodded and gave an uneasy smile before walking away. He caught a word from Tal as the music hit a lull. “…shy.”

Continuing with his work, Lane forgot about Tal’s brother until the place had emptied out and he started clearing the last of the tables. He was reaching for a glass when someone brought a hand down on top of his. He started in surprise and glanced up to see Trey standing there, bin in hand as well. Dropping his gaze, Lane yanked his hand away and darted off to the next one. His chest felt tight and he had no idea why his cheeks were flushed.

“How long have you worked for my brother?”

Trey interrupted his thoughts, causing him to almost drop a glass. People tended to avoid talking to him once they realized how bad his shyness really was. It left people uncomfortable and they didn’t like to be uncomfortable. Lane chose to remain quiet and shrugged, placing a plate of chicken-wing bones into his bin, then wiping down the table. Tal had already disappeared into his office to go through the day’s receipts, and the waitresses had all gone home for the evening, leaving Lane to do the cleanup. He didn’t mind, really, preferring to do his work in the soft silence of the establishment after the doors were locked.